Saturday, 3 December 2011

Movement of the masses: the Filipino jeepney

A newly-built jeepney at Sarao Motors, complete with five extra headlights.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Philippines
I’ve been fascinated by jeepneys since the first time I first visited Manila in 2009. The psychedelic, graffiti-style artwork mixing religion and pop culture. The names and slogans emblazoned on the front, like ‘Evangeline’ or ‘God is Love’, dwarfing the actual destination. The myriad of coloured streamers and extra, false headlights that serve no practical purpose whatsoever. Decked out in all this finery, they speed up and down the main roads of Manila, picking people up and dropping them off apparently at random. They pile up at traffic lights, sounding their horns in a continuous cacophony and pumping black exhaust fumes into the already polluted atmosphere.

Jeepneys are the unofficial symbol of Manila, featured on T-shirts and found in model form at souvenir shops throughout the capital. Originally made from World-War-II-era American jeeps, they are now mass produced, extravagantly decorated and transformed into low-cost busses. They are the main mode of public transport in the Philippines and often as overcrowded as the islands themselves, with passengers hanging off the back or sitting on the roof. I simply had to try one out.

My boss, Angela, told me that jeepneys tend to ply the main roads through Manila in a more or less straight line so I clambered aboard the open back of one that was waiting at a junction for the lights to change. I took my place on a narrow bench along one side, nearest to the driver. Once the jeepney set off, other passengers started to pass their money hand-to-hand up the bench towards me. Slightly bemused, I passed the resulting wad of cash to the driver who, at the next junction, returned me a handful of change. I passed this back down the row and, in a remarkable show of honesty and cooperation, everyone took out exactly what they were owed.


Jeepneys are built for people a good deal shorter than me so I had to constantly mind my head, which hit the roof every time we went over a bump. Once I got used to the routes I started catching them at night, when they would be lit up inside by a cheerful collection of Christmas lights and illuminated baubles. On another occasion, travelling through the mountains of Luzon, I rode on the roof of a rural jeepney. This was both exhilarating and alarming, giving as it did an uninterrupted view to the bottom of the mountain gorges.

Vintage vehicles

Jeepneys on the streets of Manila. 'Felipe Neria' is not a destination.
Photo © Andy Brown/2009/Philippines
Knowing my fascination with jeepneys, my friend Marge told me about a family-owned business called Sarao Motors. One of the early pioneers, Sarao is still building jeepneys according to a vintage 1950s design. I was revisiting Manila for a couple of weeks in September 2011, to run a digital workshop for UNICEF, so I got in touch with the current owner Edgardo Sarao, and arranged to meet up on a Saturday morning for an interview at the factory.

Sarao Motors is based in Las Pinas, a city along the coast road south of Manila, so I flagged down a taxi outside my hotel. It was a rickety old car with little suspension and no air con, driven by an old man playing songs from musicals on the radio. He was surprised when I told him where I wanted to go. “I thought that place closed years ago,” he said.

As we drove south, the percentage of jeepneys on the roads steadily increased until they were easily the dominant vehicle. I had forgotten quite how ubiquitous they were. They thronged the roads, bus stations and petrol pumps, crowding out everything else. There are similar, if less extravagant, vehicles in Bangkok (called ‘song-tau’ in Thai) but since the introduction of the metro and the skytrain they have become something of an endangered species.

Las Pinas was noticeably poorer than Manila. It began with a giant slum alongside the construction site of a new road. I saw two boys making their own fun by sliding down a concrete gutter on mats. There were stalls hawking bundles of branches and bamboo – for burning and construction respectively – and shops selling cages of dishevelled pigeons that looked like they’d just been rounded up off the streets. There were also jeepney repair shops, with lines of silver exhaust pipes strung up outside like washing hanging out to dry.

Factory records

Edgardo Sarao poses with one of his company’s recent creations.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Philippines
Sarao Motors itself was on the main road through town. The factory was a series of red-painted corrugated iron structures that looked like aircraft hangars but filled with lines of jeepneys in various states of construction. Some were little more than chassis on stilts, others were finished and freshly painted, with bold designs crying out for attention in bright colours. There was a rubbish dump in the distance behind the factory and I could see tiny men working or scavenging on top.

At the factory gates, I met Edgardo, a broad-shouldered, middle-aged Filipino with thick dark hair just starting to grey. The company was founded by Ed’s father Leonardo and uncle in the 1950s and he spoke fondly of both as he showed me round. We went to one of the hangars at the back, where there was a collection of old jeeps in the original American style. Amongst them was an elegantly-shaped, Spanish horse-drawn carriage called a ‘calesa’. In a clear precursor to jeepney art, it had a picture of a busty cowgirl on the side.

Ed pointed out the carriage. “My father was a cochero in the 1940s and he drove a calesa like this from Manila to Cavite,” he said. “That was when he first saw the potential for mass transport. Like a jeepney, the open sides of a calesa keep the passengers cool.”

Things changed for Leonardo following the allied bombardment of Manila in the closing days of World War II. The city was devastated, and its once-famous trams were gone for ever, but the departing US army left their jeeps behind. “My father was one of the first to start manufacturing jeepneys,” Ed continued. “I’m proud of that because in the midst of this chaos and the ruins of World War II, you can see the jeepney rising out of the ashes. They were born out of necessity but through Filipino creativeness they turned into folk art.”

Despite the shift to motor vehicles and his new found prosperity, Leonardo never lost his passion for horses. “He would still keep horses and sometimes race them,” Ed said. “He used to put tiny silver horses on the bonnets of all the jeepneys he made.”
A calesa – the precursor of jeepneys – complete with busty cowgirl artwork.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Philippines

Back in Bangkok, my Filipina colleague Vicky also remembered the last days of the calesa from her childhood in a small town in Laguna. “I remember being lifted up into the carriage by my mother,” she said. “It was an unsteady ride, both scary and exciting. The cocheros knew everyone in town, and where they were going. They were the main source of local gossip.”

We crossed the yard to the workshop and Ed showed me the heavy, well-oiled machinery used to make the jeepney parts. “All of these machines are from the 1950s” he said, and they looked it although they were in good condition. “This one is from the UK,” he added, moving some fenders to reveal the manufacturer name and city – Glasgow – written upside down on the base. “We elongated and widened the chassis but otherwise they're the same as the original jeeps. It’s a simple design, and easy for the driver to maintain. You can fix it yourself, like a bicycle.”

I asked Ed why Filipino jeepneys are so extravagantly decorated. “The owner wants something that expresses their individuality,” he relied. “It’s all in there, everything from their favourite rock group, to humour, sexiness and religion. We talk to buyers about what they want, like some biblical passages on the side. Many of them come with a shopping list for that.”

Another reason is purely commercial. “It’s also a way to attract young people to ride on your jeepney,” Ed added. “During the rush hour you have to dress your vehicle well to get commuters.”

I wondered who did the actual artwork. “It depends on what the buyer wants,” Ed explained. “Sometimes we employ artists who decorate the jeepneys. They use a mixture of spray paint and handbrush for the portraits. Other times we sell the vehicle plain and the owner decorates it themselves. The next time you see the jeepney, you cannot recognise it.”

Means of production

A workman examines a second-hand Japanese engine at Sarao Motors.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Philippines
Although it was a Saturday, there were a few workers sitting around the dingy workshop, surrounded by vehicle parts. One of them was repairing a second-hand Japanese engine. There was a sense of emptiness at the factory, which clearly used to be a lot busier. At its peak in the 1970s, Sarao Motors was the country’s foremost jeepney manufacturer, with 350 workers making up to 20 vehicles a month. “Back then the factory was full of people, smoke and sparks,” Ed said. “Now we make just two to three jeepneys a month.”

The company was hard hit by the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s, followed by an increase in the minimum wage. “We closed down for two weeks and downsized the production. We had to lay off 300 out of 350 staff. It was heart breaking – we had old guys who had worked for us for decades, then suddenly you have to tell them to go,” Ed said, visibly emotional.

The temporary shutdown of Sarao was big news at the time, which explains why so many people I met still thought it was closed. Now the company operates on a much smaller scale, making vintage-style jeepneys often for collectors. “We recently built one for the Filipino community in Spokane Washington,” Ed said. “They use it for parades and memorials.”

At this point Ed’s younger brother arrived at the factory, riding a bicycle. “You’re British!” he exclaimed “I love British bands. Do you know Mike and the Mechanics?” I had to admit that I didn’t, beyond the name, but it seemed like an appropriate choice.

Before I left, Ed took me to see his office. It was like something straight out of the 1960s. He had bought a computer, which he uses to promote the company on Facebook and Flickr, but all the other desks were stacked high with paper files. There were period photos and posters of Sarao jeepneys on the walls, including one advertising Philippines Airlines. These were interspersed with religious iconography and several paintings of horses, clearly from Leonardo’s years. There was also a bust of Ferdinand Marcos, the controversial former Filipino President-cum-dictator.

Ed has deliberately left the office frozen in time, as if to preserve the memory of the company’s heyday. “Those were the colourful years, the years of outrageous lights and sounds, when Sarao jeepneys became famous,” he reminisced. “Even celebrities from Hollywood were amazed by this folk art vehicle. One time Burt Reynolds came here to the factory to film scenes for a movie called ‘Impasse’.”

Environmental concerns

Passengers ride on the roof of a rural jeepney, near Banaue.
Photo © Andy Brown/2009/Philippines
The jeepney’s future is uncertain. There are currently moves by the government to phase them out in favour of other types of transport, such as light rail. Although they clearly need updating to be more environmentally friendly, I can’t help feeling that it would be a shame if the colourful jeepneys disappeared from Manila’s streets. Ed thinks it’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

“Right now everybody’s concern is environmental,” he agreed. “They introduced the electric powered jeepney last year. I’m all for it in principle but the problem is the availability of the technology. It’s much more expensive and there are limited sources. So I think we have to wait for probably five or ten years before switching to alternative fuels. But as long as there are commuters to be served, I think the jeepney will still be here.”

I said goodbye to Ed and a few days later returned to Bangkok, where the streets suddenly seemed drab in comparison. On a visit to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, I saw a line of song-taus waiting for customers. They were painted a uniform shade of reddish brown, with only the destination printed on the side and the standard two headlights each. There wasn’t a portrait of Jesus or John Lennon anywhere in sight. It seemed like such a waste of space.

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